Costly Childcare Prompts Kin Care

Costly Childcare Prompts Kin Care

April 14, 2015

Over the past year, advocates have hailed progress in providing quality child care in New York. Mayor Bill De Blasio’s universal prekindergarten initiative in New York City enrolled over 50,000 4-year-olds. Congress also passed the $5.2 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant Act setting down long-awaited reforms and infusing nearly $800 million—an increase of $55 million over the previous year—into New York State’s child care system.

But now, child care advocates are busy shuttling between New York City and Albany to try and sort out how the new federal reforms will be implemented in the state. Most importantly, who will bear the costs for new mandates to inspect child care centers, run background checks on child care staff and train them in first aid and CPR.

Advocates warn that mounting costs are being passed along to parents.

New York already has the most expensive child care in the country and the state’s poorest parents often struggle to pay for it.

“A perfect storm of diminished federal and state funding, a growing low-wage workforce and the steadily increasing cost of child care is straining New York's child care to the breaking point,” the Empire Justice Center grimly reported last year. And while the block grant is a welcome improvement, experts say, it hardly solves the larger problem.

Reports show a low-wage single parent would have to shell out roughly half of their income every year to enroll one child in a child care center, according to a 2014 report by Child Care Aware of America.

The average cost for a private child care program now tops $13,000 a year in New York, an expense that rivals public college tuition here. And last year, 1 in 5 working mothers in New York, with a child under 3, earned an hourly wage of $10.10 or less. While government programs provide vouchers to some of these mothers to help pay for child care, the voucher system fails to deliver this money to all of the women who qualify to receive it. In fact, only 27 percent of income-eligible families receive subsidized child care in New York City.

Funding has been a persistent problem, says Betty Holcomb of the Center for Children’s Initiatives. The city aims high: A single parent with one child qualifies for subsidized care if they make up to 275 percent of the federal poverty level—about $42,000 annually—but the city can’t actually dole out those subsidies because of budget limitations.

“We don’t actually deliver,” Holcomb explains, “because we run out of money.” These women often turn to their family, friends or neighbors to care for their children, a segment of child care that the state calls “license-exempt” and experts call “home-based” or “informal child care providers.” Despite being one of the most common choices for child care among low-income mothers, “home-based” child care is often the least discussed and the least supported segment of America's chronically underfunded child care system.

Angelica Velazquez at CUNY’s Informal Family Child Care Project explains that, aside from the daunting issues of affordability, accessibility is the other chief barrier for low-income mothers seeking child care.

A parent might choose informal child care because it’s close to home, because they speak the same language or because the care is better. For example, Velazquez explains, “there are not a lot of quality after-school programs in many communities and in many schools.”

Moreover, many single parents are mothers who work irregular hours that child care centers rarely accommodate. A center may be open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., but that won’t be much help to a mother working an evening shift or a rotating schedule.

“As we see more jobs being created with odd hours and erratic hours,” says Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center, “the need [for flexible child care] becomes more important.” She adds that “New York is a place that is characterized by a lot of these odd hours.”

In 2006, New York had over 116,000 children in subsidized child care—including centers, group home-based care and informal “kin care.” This year, there are slightly more than 94,000. Somewhat mysteriously, there are 10,000 fewer children in subsidized child care today than a decade ago.

“So, what’s happened to 10,000 children?” asks Jeremy Hoffman of the United Federation of Teachers, who rep- resents thousands of child care providers. “They have to put their children someplace, somewhere.”

No one really knows the answer. But Hoffman has a guess: “I think they end up in completely unregulated settings. The underground child care system.”

Holcomb has heard stories as well. “We hear reports of the nice woman down the street who’s running a program out of her home, underground, taking money off the books.”

There isn’t any data on these unregulated, unsubsidized home-based child care providers, according to advocates.

With no oversight, no health and safety inspections, and no idea how or where these invisible providers operate, some policymakers are opposed to supporting any home-based providers at all.

And this wary mindset leads to a recurrent push-pull over regulation and funding: first pushing for tighter regulation to control the quality of home-based child care and later pulling the funding needed to support child care subsidies and oversight, which drives children back into cheaper, unregulated child care.

“You know, no low-income New York- er is choosing to put their child in harm’s way,” Hoffman says. “People who don’t get a subsidy make some very difficult and painful decisions. They have to go to work to make money to put food on their plate, try to put a roof over their family’s head ... and they’re going to turn to somebody they know and they trust.”

If parents are going to choose a family, friend or neighbor to care for their child, Hoffman argues, it’s better to support that decision and try to bring those “kin care” providers under the regulatory umbrella with government subsidies.

New York State has deputized regional nonprofits that cater to “kin care” providers to enroll them in government subsidies so they can receive government funds for their child care work.

“Many of those folks are brought into the system by the parent.” Hoffman says. “Frankly, from a health and safety standpoint, these vouchers are essential.”

For now, it doesn’t seem like anyone is arguing with that.

Although some questions remain about who will pay for what, both child care regulation and funding are on the upswing in New York. Those involved on the nonprofit side are hoping both of those trends last long enough to bring about a more permanent change for the better in the state child care system. 

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.